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desert gardening basics
August, 2013, Page 130
DESERT GARDENING 101
According to Audubon Arizona, about 300 bird species breed in our state. To enjoy some of this incredible diversity in your garden, consider incorporating the simple techniques that follow in your planning and maintenance routine.
Change Your Habits
Any successful wildlife habitat includes four elements: water, food, shelter and nesting sites. Before adding plants, consider how adjusting your maintenance routine can transform an existing landscape into a more bird-friendly zone.
Eliminate synthetic pesticides
—Many bird species rely on insects for the bulk of their diet, so let them perform insect control. Follow Integrated Pest Management (IPM) techniques, which encourage organic and other healthy gardening practices to reduce reliance on synthetic chemicals. Always start with the least toxic control methods, such as spraying off insects with water or hoeing weeds. Many insects are seasonal and as temperatures warm or cool, their populations diminish naturally. Find more tips for healthy yards at Audubon Arizona’s site at
—Unless you make a living as a topiary artist, there is no reason to shear shrubs and groundcovers into balls, cubes and other unnatural figures. Frequent pruning eliminates flowering; thus, there is no nectar, insects or seeds to eat. Also, overly manicured plants offer insufficient foliage for cover and nesting. (Be sure to pass the message on to your landscape crew.) For advice on rejuvenating sheared plants, see December 2012’s Desert Gardening 101 at
Fill in the Gaps
Make a chart of your existing plants and what foods they provide to birds. List plant names on one axis. On the other, include columns detailing what seasons offer flowers, berries, seeds or insects. Don’t know when insects appear? Involve kids in the natural world by sleuthing for insects with a magnifying glass.
Choose plants to fill in any gaps in your chart. For example, you may note that your chart shows plentiful spring flowers, closely followed by early summer seed dispersal, but autumn offers no sustenance. For options, check Arizona Game & Fish’s native plant chart, which lists seasonal food sources, at
—When choosing plants, think short, medium and tall. Diversity in
height creates more comfort levels for varied birds to breed, roost and forage. Gambel’s quail nest on the ground beneath bushes; cactus wrens construct grassy/twiggy affairs among cholla branches. Raptors like tall perches with open views for hunting; verdins flit about seeking insects on leafy shrub or tree branches.
—For the majority of your landscape, stick with plants native to your region. The long, intertwined food chain is well-adapted to these sources. It’s OK to include some non-natives that provide significant food or shelter, but avoid invasive species that aggressively spread into natural areas. The Arizona Native Plant Society offers information on natives and invasives at
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